More people have been caught buying or possessing contraband cigarettes in the past year, as the price difference between duty-paid and duty-unpaid cigarettes continues to drive demand for the latter, said the Singapore Customs.
As the authorities continue to tackle the illicit trade, Singapore Customs statistics show that last year, 5,846 people were caught for buying or possessing contraband cigarettes. This is an increase from 5,184 in 2016 and 5,472 in 2015.
In February this year, tobacco tax went up by 10 per cent, making cigarettes at least $1 more expensive.
However, the number of people caught for peddling contraband cigarettes has decreased. There were 309 people arrested last year, down from 437 in 2016 and 462 in 2015.
In the past years, the overall number of duty-unpaid cigarettes confiscated has remained consistent, with 2.8 million packets seized in the past two years, and 2.9 million packets in 2015.
The number of people prosecuted for cigarette offences has also decreased: 582 last year, down from 630 in 2016 and 778 in 2015.
A Singapore Customs spokesman said it works with law enforcement agencies at the borders to conduct enforcement to curb the smuggling of duty-unpaid cigarettes. It also conducts inland enforcement against syndicates.
TEMPTED BY QUICK BUCK
Peddlers are tempted by the quick profit. From what I understand, they get into the trade through word of mouth. More (peddlers) are also willing to take the risk because they believe the trade isn't as (risky) as peddling drugs.
CRIMINAL LAWYER RAJAN SUPRAMANIAM
Contraband cigarettes do not come with the SDPC - or Singapore Duty-Paid Cigarette - mark, which features a series of vertical lines and the letters "SDPC".
Last year, four cigarette syndicates were busted, up from three in the previous two years.
However, Singapore Customs continues to remain vigilant, as it said contraband cigarette peddlers have become more discreet by operating in back lanes and alleys, and via social media platforms, to avoid detection.
Of the peddlers caught between 2015 and last year, close to two-thirds were foreigners.
In March, a syndicate leader was handed the heaviest sentence for contraband cigarette offences in four years. Mok Chee Kin, 50, who is stateless, was fined $30 million and jailed for five years and eight months for crafting a plan to smuggle contraband cigarettes into Singapore via Jurong Port in 2016.
The spokesman said: "To suppress demand, Singapore Customs conducts islandwide operations - for example in the heartland, industrial estates and the Central Business District - to enforce against street peddlers and buyers of duty-unpaid cigarettes.
"Singapore Customs also closely monitors social media platforms to clamp down on off-street cigarette peddling activities."
According to those with knowledge of the illegal cigarette trade, the demand for contraband cigarettes has remained consistent over the years despite crackdowns by the authorities. The price of these cigarettes can be half that of duty-paid ones.
Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam said he sees about one inquiry each month from clients accused of peddling duty-unpaid cigarettes.
"Peddlers are tempted by the quick profit. From what I understand, they get into the trade through word of mouth," he added. "More (peddlers) are also willing to take the risk because they believe the trade isn't as (risky) as peddling drugs."
The amount of revenue collected by Singapore Customs for duty-paid cigarettes was slightly above $1 billion in the past years. About $1.1 billion was collected last year, a slight increase from $1.07 billion the previous year. For the first four months of this year, about $446 million has been collected.